When is it worth updating a classic?

This week I went to a performance of Pirates! (yes, the exclamation point is in the original), a "modernization" of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance.  It was not as bad as you might think, largely because the performers and orchestra were good, and most of the music (if not the book) remained.  They even bootlegged in the Lord Chancellor's nightmare song from Iolanthe to open the second act, to good effect.

The modernization involved pretty much what you might think:  sexual references, throwing up, references to colonialism, some more sexual references, including jokes about virgins and the difficulty of finding them older than the original operetta, and some "topical" mentions.  The Pirate King was played as Johnny Depp doing Jack Sparrow, something I'm sure even Johnny Depp is tired of.

Since Gilbert was always topical, it makes sense that those of us not enamored of the cultural details of the Victorian Era would enjoy having references updated. But there is an inherent problem of cultural production here.

Since Gilbert was a genius, you have to be pretty good for your modern patches not to seem even dimmer than they are by contrast to the bright intricacy of his language.  But if you're good enough to match Gilbert's quality, you're good enough to be doing your own work.  So such updatings are either the leisure exercises of people known for other things, or second-rate work by those who have nothing original to contribute.  In this case, it is very much the latter.

All in all, not the root canal of an experience that some recent Huntington productions have been.  But my friends and I have decided not to resubscribe next year, and instead explore a selection of other performances around town.  That's our power in this case:  exit.